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Employment affects psychological wellbeing

Job losses are having a damaging effect on individuals’ psychological wellbeing, and the negative effects are not necessarily rectified if their job prospects improve, according to new research published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

The study, by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and University College London, shows that experiencing job loss has a significant negative impact on psychological wellbeing. Researchers also found that while moving into employment did in turn have positive effects on mental health, these were not as great as the negative effects of job loss. This could be explained by the fact that having experience of unemployment makes people fearful of losing their job again in the future.

Previous research has shown a strong association between being unemployed and low psychological wellbeing. However, there have been few studies that have attempted to define cause and effect in this relationship.

The authors of this study aimed to establish this by looking specifically at how changes in employment status predicted changes in individuals’ psychological wellbeing. As part of this they looked at different types of joblessness, and made the distinction between secure and insecure employment.

They analysed data from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) to track 10,494 working-age individuals in the UK over a period of 17 years (1991 -2007). An individual’s psychological wellbeing was measured each year using the 12-item version of the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12).  The scoring system produced ratings ranging from 0-36, with higher scores indicating greater levels of psychological distress.

Participants were also asked to define their employment status in one of five categories: securely employed, insecurely employed, unemployed, permanently sick, and other inactive (economically inactive but not permanently sick).

Researchers found that experiencing a spell of insecure employment, unemployment, permanent sickness or other inactivity, led to significantly higher levels of psychological distress among participants compared to when they were in secure employment. This was shown through elevated GHQ-12 scores.

Moving from employment to permanent sickness had the greatest negative impact (an increase of 2.8 points in the GHQ-12 score), followed by going from employment to unemployment (an increase of 2.2 points).

Dr Ellen Flint from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, lead author on the study, said: "Against a backdrop of sustained global economic uncertainty, it is of vital importance that we gain a greater understanding of how joblessness affects psychological wellbeing at the population level.

“This study shows that experiencing job loss causes significant reductions in psychological wellbeing. It also shows that mental health improves as a result of moving out of unemployment into work. However, this positive effect is not as great as the negative effect of job loss.

“The methods used in this study take account of the effects that other factors linked to employment status may have on psychological wellbeing, in order to distil the effects of changing employment status. These other factors included changes in income, level of education, physical health, and age.

“The research offers persuasive evidence for a causal relationship between employment status and psychological wellbeing, and reveals that this relationship is more complex than has previously been shown.”

The study was funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

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